Telehealth Access for Seniors student volunteers drop off a donation at the ICHS International District clinic on August 2, 2020. Photo courtesy of ICHS.

Healthcare has changed dramatically since COVID-19 first hit Washington state in January. Local clinics have had to find new ways to protect their patients from the virus, while still providing care. In-person healthcare is not always the best option for frail, older adults, who are encouraged to use telehealth instead. 

Telehealth Access for Seniors is a national nonprofit that’s addressing the new telehealth demand, specifically for older adults. “Telehealth Access for Seniors was started in March of this year,” said Grace Chen, a Yale student from Bellevue and a co-lead for the Washington state team along with Nhu Nguyen, a UW student from Edmonds. 

Many seniors lack technological literacy and are locked out of telehealth. Research from UC San Francisco shows that 13 million senior Americans demonstrate “telemedicine unreadiness.” Additionally, low-income seniors may not be able to afford the smart devices needed to support video conferencing. 

Telehealth Access for Seniors is helping older Seattle area residents, many who are Asian immigrants and do not speak English, access critical care during the pandemic.  

Grace Chen, Nhu Nguyen, Katie Li, Li Dai, and Sophia Rosales are among the hardworking college and high school students who volunteer to support the Telehealth Access for Seniors’ Washington State team.

Telehealth Access for Seniors doesn’t give donated devices directly to seniors. Instead, the group partners with health clinics that serve as a middleman. The clinics request a certain number of devices and the team then locates, cleans and donates them. The clinic distributes the devices to seniors in need.

The Washington state team’s first partner clinic was International Community Health Services (ICHS), a non-profit health center with many API patients. ICHS requested 140 devices for seniors in its assisted living program at Legacy House and its PACE (Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly) program. “We have fulfilled 60 devices so far,” said Nhu. “We’re expecting to fulfill the other 80 pretty soon because we just got an exciting grant from Pacific Hospital Preservation and Development Authority.” 

Volunteering at a newly-formed nonprofit doesn’t come without challenges. “Our tech support team was born out of the fact that getting devices alone wasn’t enough to help seniors access telehealth,” said Li. “Many seniors weren’t used to using these types of devices so we started a tech support team that also addresses things like linguistic barriers.”

The volunteers distribute guides with instructions for set up, application use and even how to start an email account in languages including English, Spanish and Chinese. 

“I actually helped edit the Chinese version, so I think that’s the benefit of having an entirely student-run organization because we have many members who are native speakers in other languages,” said Li. “We can help break down language barriers for some of our senior patients whose first language may not be English.”

Chen had lessons learned for other students looking to make a difference during the pandemic. “Keep your patients in mind and why you’re doing it,” she said. “Because you’re bound to run into obstacles. Like driving around the city picking up devices is sometimes not the most fun, so keeping your impact in mind is important.”

She pointed to the success of the Washington team, saying, “What has made our team really successful is drawing on the strengths of everyone in the team and making sure everyone has a chance to contribute in the ways that they’re strongest.”

Li said it was heartwarming to see so many people offer to donate their devices to Telehealth Access for Seniors, noting, “If you reach out, the community will be there. The community is trying to help others and make the world a better place, all you have to do is reach out and ask.”

For more information about donating or receiving a device from Telehealth Access for Seniors, visit https://www.telehealthforseniors.org/    

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